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GoFundMe donations to disaster survivors disproportionately go to the wealthy, study finds

A bird’s eye view of homes burnt to the ground by a wildfire in a neighborhood. Several trees and shrubbery are blackened throughout the composition.
Scorched homes in Louisville, Colo., from the 2021 Marshall Fire, which destroyed more than 1,000 structures.

A new study shows GoFundMe donations to disaster survivors often benefit people with high incomes, not those who need it most.

The 2021 Marshall Fire near Boulder is Colorado’s most destructive and costliest wildfire, burning down more than 1,000 homes and causing $2 billion in damages.

Years later, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder analyzed donations sent through the crowdfunding site GoFundMe to hundreds of people who lost their homes in the blaze.

They found people with household incomes above $150,000 received nearly 30% more money, on average, than those with incomes below $75,000. What’s more, wealthier people were more likely to have a GoFundMe campaign started for them by a friend or co-worker.

“Because of the advantages that wealthy people have in society in their networks, they know people who are in a better position to donate to them,” said Tony Cookson, a professor of finance at UC Boulder and study co-author. “On the flip side, it is sort of showing that this type of support isn’t evenly allocated.”

Some Marshall Fire survivors received more than $60,000 in donations, while others received less than $5,000.

Cookson said federal disaster aid doesn’t fill funding gaps. According to the study, wildfire survivors who got property damage support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) received an average of only $2,500.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.